In the domed rotunda of Dublin’s City Hall, a ring of six grey stools face inward at six black music stands. Six microphones anticipate being borne aloft by members of Tonnta, the Irish music collective whose concerts make a musical Venn diagram out of creation and performance. Six speakers face outward towards an audience seated concentrically around the performers. Tonnta is the first Irish ensemble to perform the evening’s sole work Stimmung (‘tuning’, either of music or the soul), composed by Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1968.
The performers (dressed in grey and black) advance one by one at different speeds from various points on the perimeter, taking their microphones in hand and their seats in their own time. Tonight’s music director Elizabeth Hilliard crafts a pleasingly unified whole out of 51 parts (or models), with the performers creating different moods from a range of vocal overtones and energetic rhythms. Incantations of gods’ names and the composer’s own poetry straddle the boundary between singing and speaking.
Some performances of Stimmung organise their models on the fly, but Tonnta has decided on its order in advance, making the models flow smoothly from one to another and delighting the audience with changes both subtle and overt. That is not to say that chance elements are totally absent. A few passing sirens and aleatoric car horns are chance adherents to Stockhausen’s style, being exactly in rhythm and tune with the ensemble. Some performances might have been disrupted by these, but tonight’s is enhanced.
One performer leads each model, each of undetermined duration like a musical holding pattern, producing a musical atmosphere that circles above the audience while reflecting the layout of the stage and the architecture of the space. Models and their moods endure until one performer passes on the musical baton to the next with a wave of his or her hand, and, through this, Tonnta’s synergy makes its biggest impression. There are many times when the performers’ movements synchronise, when eyes meet, when smiles curl the edges of their mouths at the mention of a particular day of the week (yes, they are part of the score). It advances them (and us) out of the grey and up into that multicoloured atmosphere, blending technique, craft and skill with music, mood and soul.
The performance climbs with musical and poetic fluidity to a titillating climax, releasing the musical tension with one of Stimmung‘s erotic poems. At their end, the performers give each other a solemn bow before the audience shatters that atmosphere with one of its own: thundering applause. A fitting mood with which to end an evening’s exploration of the soul, and a testament to the group’s expertise.
Tonnta Vocal Ensemble: Elizabeth Hilliard; Bláthnaid Conroy-Murphy; Michelle O’Rourke; Rory Lynch; Robbie Blake; Eoghan Desmond
Music Director: Elizabeth Hilliard; Sound Engineer: Adrian Hart; Producer: Síobhra Quinlan; Tonnta Artistic Director: Robbie Blake
Image of Tonnta by Miriam Kaczor